After all this talk about flexible working, why are employers pushing to return to the office full-time?

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You may have seen the running joke on the internet about how tone-deaf companies can be when it comes to employee well-being.

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Company: We want to promote mental health in the workplace.

Employees: How about hiring more people so we feel less pressured and increasing our salaries to keep up with the rising cost of living so we’re not so stressed?

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Company: No, it is not. Try yoga.

It would be funny if it didn’t seem so close to reality for many people.

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Nearly half of Singaporeans have returned to the office full-time, according to the 2022 UOB study, although more than 80 percent prefer some form of flexible working arrangement. Only 52 percent in Randstad’s survey said they were offered remote work options.

It seems strange that we are holding back this important pandemic benefit. After all the talk about flexibility and the importance of remote work, it’s hard to understand why some companies insist on returning to the office full-time.

Have employers already forgotten pandemic lessons about the importance of employee wellness?

With all the talk about flexible working and wellbeing, it’s hard to understand why some companies insist employees return to the office full-time.

Short sightedness or neglect for employee welfare?

Perhaps it is a case of short-sightedness, with employers focused only on returning to “business as usual” without considering the long-term effects on their employees.

Pandemic changes can be sudden and profound, but they happened in only about three years – a relative blip in many business life cycles. Employers didn’t have a choice when workplace capacity limits were in place, but now that they do, corporate inertia drives them back the way it always has been.

Or maybe it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. After actively engaging employees working remotely, do employers feel that welfare concerns have gone away as employees return to the office?

The majority of Singaporean workers prefer to continue with flexible working arrangements, according to a study by the Institute of Policy Studies, which also found that workers have better mental health when their work arrangements match their preferences.

Productivity and Retention

It is not that workers have not proved themselves to be productive during the pandemic years. According to a study by Qualtrics, even though the learning curve to working remotely was steep, one in three employees in Singapore felt more productive after they started working from home.

In the United States, the workforce appears to be less productive in 2022 than just a year ago. Some analysts believe burnout or mandatory return-to-office is part of the reason; Others say that the office culture and lack of social interaction cause teams to lose their cohesion. Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff recently said in a blunt message to employees that new hires were facing lower productivity during the pandemic years later.

We need to be clear about this: remote work is not without its challenges. There may be trouble in implementing the hybrid work.

But the employees want the corporate executives not to force them to come back to the office as it would make them work better.

Employers could very well have shot themselves in the foot. Studies conducted during the pandemic have shown that companies that offer flexible work options see lower absenteeism and turnover rates.

Companies that prioritize employee welfare are often seen as more attractive to potential employees, aiding in recruitment and retention.

Losing Bargaining Power in a Slowing Economy

But with economic uncertainties ahead and slow growth in major economies and the looming threat of a possible recession, some employers may use this as an excuse to take advantage of employees. If in tough times workers won’t have the same bargaining power as they do in a tight labor market, why change?

It’s like playing a game of musical chairs, except the music never stops and the chairs keep moving. At the exact time that employees are comfortable with their current work arrangements, employers are pulling the rug out from under them.

It’s tricky, but employers shouldn’t be short-sighted here either. Hurting business productivity and ignoring employees no longer seem like wise strategies while the economy is still growing.

Nor do they keep the company in good stead in the event of a downturn. Again, they should remember that the economy will eventually recover, and they will be judged for not taking care of their employees during tough times.

It doesn’t need to be an all or nothing situation. Offer a blended work option with certain days identified for teams to meet and collaborate in person and flexible work schedules. Be transparent with employees about why they return to the office – not just because things were like that before.

Corporate teams may seek services to provide mental health and wellness support, but nothing beats a supportive boss and understanding team.

Working together in the office can create that necessary synergy. But coaxing people back into their cubicles full-time may do more harm than help.

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